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1941 - 1945the hell ships

an interactive historical website

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the pacific war saw japan conquer huge territories across asia, taking thousands of allied troops as prisoners of war. what happened to some of these men is recorded here on this website

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the hell ships

in may 1942 the japanese began transferring british, australian, american and dutch pows by sea from their conquered territories in asia to japan. also aboard these cramped ships were thousands of romushas (asian forced labourers) whose fate was sealed with the pows to go to japan to work in the mines, factories and shipyards. similar to treatment on the construction of the thai burma railway and the bataan death march, prisoners were treated with no regard for their welfare. often crammed into cargo holds with little air, food or water for journeys that would last weeks. many died due to asphyxia, starvation or dysentery. on top of this as the pows lay in the dark, often locked into the belly of these iron ships, they could hear the explosions as allied torpedoes hit other ships in the convoy. these unmarked prisoner transporters were targeted as enemy ships by allied submarines and aircraft.

more than 20,000 allied pows died at sea when the ships carrying them were attacked by allied submarines and aircraft. although allied headquarters often knew of the presence of pows through radio interception and code breaking, the ships were sunk because interdiction of critical strategic materials was more important than the deaths of prisoners-of-war.

these ships became known even during their journeys as ‘hell ships’.

this website contains the testimony of three men who survived.

kachidoki maru & tamahoko maru

the kachidoki maru and the tamahoko maru were two of the many ships that carried pows across the south china sea on these horrific journeys. the ships also carried cargo of salt or sugar as well as injured japanese military and japanese families returning home.

the pows were herded into the holds, down narrow steps into the bellies of the ships. the hatches to these holds were often battened down making conditions below unbearable. men slept on iron floors, often in total darkness and in cramped conditions. the journey to japan often involved stopping at one or two ports on route and took several weeks.

the chances of survival

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the chances of survival

by 1944 the americans had joined the war and deployed armed submarines in the south china sea to track and attack japanese convoys. the japanese did not mark their ships as carrying pows and many of the hell ships were torpedoed by the allies with massive loss of life.

according to, a website that collects data from the war, the following book is referenced:
prisoners of the japanese in wwii, by van waterford, 1994 ‘the author (true name, willem f. wanrooy) was aboard the junyo-maru when it was torpedoed on september 18, 1944. the ship was carrying 2,200 pows of various nationalities as well as 4,320 javanese conscript labourers -- a total of 6,520 souls. only 880 survived, making it the worst maritime disaster in world history. wanrooy was interned in pow camps for 3½ years.’

‘more than 62,000 pows were transported in 56 ships, of which 19 were torpedoed or bombed (and sunk) one was lost in a typhoon. more than 22,000 (35.2 percent) -- or more than one in three -- lost their lives." taken from

the pows in appalling conditions huddled in the dark holds of the ships would hear the explosions all around them. many perished in the blast from the strike of a torpedo, others went down with the ship, the chances of getting out of the hold were almost impossible. those lucky enough to get into the water had to swim through crude oil draining from the stricken vessel and hang onto bits of wreckage to survive. a few lucky ones made it onto life rafts.


alistair urquhart, a pow who was aboard the kachidoki maru sailing to japan recalls: “ on the fifth night we were torpedoed, i don’t know if the water forced the ships batons open but somehow i ended up in the water, burning oil everywhere. i knew i needed to swim quickly away or be sucked down with the sinking ship. it was dark and all you could hear were the men in the water shouting for their wives and children.”

japanese and pows survivors from the stricken ships ended up in the shark infested waters together. some were picked up by japanese boats, however, most pows were left in the water desperately trying to stay afloat on the bits of wreckage.

the uss sealion ii and the uss pampanito were the american subs that torpedoed the katchidoki maru. after three days they returned to the scene and to their horror, on surfacing, discovered the pows, still covered in the oil from the sunken ships, desperately trying to stay alive on makeshift rafts. at great danger of being spotted in enemy waters the subs picked up as many men as possible. eventually the captain of uss sealion ii had to make the impossible decision that he could take no more to safety. fearing japanese aircraft attack he ordered the submarine to dive, leaving many pows in the water to an almost certain death.

american ex-serviceman who were aboard the submarines told the story of one pow who had been brought on board in a terrible state: “he had not had a lifejacket and had been treading water for three days. he couldn’t stop moving his legs, he was still treading water when we got him on board. the doctor tried to talk to him, told him he didn’t need to do it anymore, he was safe, eventually he heard the doc and stopped moving, at that moment he died. we lost four of them before we got to land, we buried them at sea. the survivors in this footage were the lucky few, thousands of others perished in the waters. other survivors were picked up by japanese frigates and whaling ships.

the allied pows were used as forced labour in mines, factories and docks around japan, many were sent to camps on the outskirts of nagasaki where they continued as prisoners of the japanese until the dropping of the atomic bombs in 1945. incredibly most survived this. on returning home many found normal life very difficult, carrying the scars of this terrible experience for the rest of their lives.

this is a non-profit website. interviews were filmed by the hla team at our own cost and we give thanks to the survivors who kindly gave us their time and memories; alistair urquhart, george housego and leopald manning, map of sunken hell ships courtesy of the pow research network – japan, illustration of kachidoki maru by kihachiro ueda. we also credit the documentary made by granada tv 'the crossing' and footage shot by joseph c. bates. also thanks to isaac ettedgui for the use of his music and to yuhi nakano for the design of the website. thank you to the following: british pathe for archive footage, pau vilatot for the animation, david fairhead for edited sequences, kim moore for research and all at hla for helping to make this website possible.

if you are interested in this subject or can help us add to the hell ships story for a possible future documentary please email us at hla is a production company who made the documentary moving half the mountain, building burma's death railway. link to documentary

this web site was compiled by hla